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Steve Jobs, Apple chief executive, on Tuesday called on the four major record companies to start selling songs online without the copy protection software known as digital rights management.

Apple has been under pressure in Europe to make its iTunes Music Store compatible with players other than the iPod. Consumer groups and agencies in Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden have made antitrust complaints against Apple in recent months.

“Perhaps those [European countries] unhappy with the current situation should redirect their energies towards persuading the music companies to sell their music DRM – free,” he said in a rare statement published on Apple’s website.

The songs sold on the service are protected by Apple’s proprietary FairPlay software, which prevents users from making multiple copies for distribution. Mr Jobs said Apple had concluded that if it licenses FairPlay to other companies it could no longer guarantee to protect the music it licenses from the major labels – Vivendi’s Universal Music, Sony BMG Music Entertainment, EMI and Warner Music Group.

Instead, he favours abolishing DRM entirely so any MP3 player could play music purchased from any online store. “This is clearly the best alternative for consumers and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat,” he says.

Richard Stice, analyst at Standard & Poor’s equity research, said Tuesday’s statement appeared to be an attempt to combat the negative publicity Apple had been receiving in Europe.

“He’s been getting a lot of heat from several countries. In some ways, this could get consumers on his side and stop Apple looking like the bad guy.”

Mr Stice said the removal of copyright protection from online music downloads was likely to benefit Apple as the number one player, more than rivals such as Microsoft and Sony.

“I think it’s a pretty smart thing for him to say. If you use [Microsoft’s] Zune, you can’t use iTunes – for Apple, if there’s no DRM, it would open up the market much more.”

In being so public with his views, Mr Jobs may also be trying to put pressure on the major labels where private negotiations have failed. The music industry has been implacable in insisting on copyright protection for downloaded music.

Mr Jobs argues that “DRMs haven’t worked and may never work to halt music piracy.”

More than 20bn songs were sold completely DRM-free in 2006 on unprotected CDs by record companies. This was more than 10-times the number of DRM-protected songs sold worldwide by online stores, he says, while only around 3 per cent of the music on the 90m iPods sold to date had been purchased from iTunes.

Mr Jobs’ argument was somewhat at odds with Apple’s complaint last year that a proposed French law making music DRM-free would be tantamount to “state-sponsored piracy.”

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